It was August 1984. Exhausted from running Gary Hart' presidential campaign, Bill Shore was leafing through a newspaper when an article stopped him short. The headline read: "As Many as 200,000 to Die of Starvation in Ethiopia."
He suddenly felt a keen sense of outrage, which, in turn, filled him with unexpected inspiration.
"I remember thinking that I was thinking on my own. That I was feeling something again," recalls Mr. Shore. "When you work for a senator for a number of years, you condition yourself to think about what the senator's position would be on different things. I remember having this great, refreshing feeling that this is my own sense of outrage."
That summer, Share Our Strength was born from Mr. Shore's notion that it was sensible to connect those with the most food -- the people in the restaurant industry -- to those with the least.
Using organizing skills gained from years of working for a senator, Mr. Hart of Colorado, Mr. Shore helped mold various sections of the restaurant industry into a powerful national force for the hungry and homeless.
Taste of the Nation, SOS's largest annual fund-raiser, invites chefs to participate in benefit food and wine tastings. Last month, 5,000 chefs in more than 100 cities raised $3.5 million for the hungry and the homeless. (Baltimore's recent fund-raiser, held at Camden Yards, raised about $38,000 -- double the 1992 amount.)
"When you take a group of people and say, 'Do what you're best at, in your own way, and we'll convert that into dollars and food for hungry people,' they get very excited about it. They really work at it," Mr. Shore says.
In just nine years, Share Our Strength has become one of the largest private hunger relief organizations in the United States. Last year, it distributed more than $3 million to domestic and international programs, ranging from food banks in Idaho to emergency relief in Somalia. In Maryland, the organization gave $16,550 for programs at the Maryland Food Bank, the Salvation Army and Food Link in Annapolis.
Share Our Strength is also building a reputation as one of the nation's most creative nonprofits as it pioneers new methods of fund-raising; it receives no government money.
Mr. Shore has persuaded some of the nation's best-known fiction writers -- including Anne Tyler, Jane Smiley and Michael Dorris -- to write short stories for the group's fund-raising anthologies, "Louder Than Words" and "Voices Louder Than Words." A children's anthology, "Home," offers new works by well-known authors and illustrators. "Mysteries of Life and the Universe," a fund-raising anthology of essays from leading science writers, has also won critical praise.
Last fall, SOS's first national reading to relieve hunger raised $43,000 in one day. Thousands of listeners paid $5 each to hear Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, Philip Roth, William P. Kennedy and other writers read at colleges and bookstores across the nation.
"SOS is a model of what government is supposed to do," says novelist Frederick Busch, a supporter of the group who originated the idea for the national reading. "It's about enlightened self-interest. What is staggering to me is that it's such an impeccably intelligent use of resources."
And it's all based on heart.
"Billy Shore does not see a poor, a hungry, a homeless person as a political issue. Or as a problem to be solved with an academic analysis -- as far too many people do. To Billy, homeless people have names," says Sen. Bob Kerrey, who hired Mr. Shore to be his chief of staff.
The new breed
Mr. Shore, 38, has become one of the leaders of a new breed of public service entrepreneurs, a group that includes Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, which draws top college graduates to teach in public schools, and Alan Khazei and Michael Brown, founders of City Year, which is described as an urban Peace Corps.
As he talks about his work, Mr. Shore gives impressions of both intense concentration and nervous energy, answering questions thoughtfully and concisely while shifting in his seat, crossing and uncrossing his legs. A piece of yellow legal paper with the day's agenda sits in his shirt pocket like a road map, reminding him of the distance left to travel.
"Billy's always working," says Mr. Busch. "While he is working with me on a problem on the phone, he is also working on two other matters. He has several watertight compartments in his brain, so if one part gets flooded with the need for attention to the public side of his work, the other part can remain privately working on whatever. . . . He's a brilliantly tuned, made-in-America engine that is always idling."
His younger sister, Debbie Shore, associate director of SOS, says he is superb at condensing piles of information -- "He can read any article and spit it out" -- and is extremely productive. Until last year, he ran Share Our Strength as well as handling a full-time political job.
From 1978 to 1987, Mr. Shore worked for Mr. Hart in a variety of positions, including legislative director and political director. After the Colorado senator's departure from the 1988 presidential race, Mr. Shore served as chief of staff for Mr. Kerrey until 1991. He worked on the Nebraska Democrat's presidential campaign last year and still is one of his advisers.
"It's frustrating how slow government can be, how indirect your impact feels sometimes," says Mr. Shore. "After 13 years [in politics], and having two little kids now, and feeling that SOS was really ready to break out, I was ready to move on. I figured you can't have a staff of 16 people and only be here two hours a day."
However, colleagues and friends still marvel at how well he managed.
"Billy was a real different kind of political person; his motivations were much more focused than most," says his sister, who also worked briefly for Mr. Hart. "Most political people kind of jump around. He was in politics because of one person with an idea."
Richard Ben Cramer, author of "What It Takes: The Way to the White House," describes Mr. Shore as floating above the rivalries and jealousies of politics.
"His job for Hart was not only keeping a million balls in the air -- you can't imagine the amount of details Billy can handle -- but Hart was very impatient with scheduling requirements and the kissy-face that politics requires. He would leave a lot of people feeling frustrated," Mr. Cramer says. "And Billy would blow through behind him, like a sweet wind after a storm, and make everyone feel so much better about what they had gotten done that they were willing to try it again next week."
A student of the Kennedys
Mr. Shore grew up in Pittsburgh, where his father, Nate Shore, ran the home office of Congressman William S. Moorhead. Debbie Shore remembers her 6-foot-tall, blond brother as spending a lot of time reading books on the Kennedys, especially Bobby Kennedy -- "Billy was never into music" -- and organizing projects like book drives for the local prison.
He grew up in a Jewish family that passed up the formalities of religion.
"We didn't go to temple, didn't get bar mitzvahed, didn't go to Sunday school," recalls Mr. Shore. "I probably wouldn't have gotten married in a temple except that my wife wanted to. I actually remember my parents saying, 'If we teach you to be good neighbors and good citizens, you'll know everything you need to know about religion.' "
Mr. Shore lives in Silver Spring with his wife, Bonnie, a part-time occupational therapist; their children Zack, 7, and Mollie, 3; a sheep dog and a cat. He is a passionate and omnivorous reader. A frayed copy of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" sits near stacks of newspapers and magazines on his desk at Share Our Strength. Photographs of his children reveal mountains of books at home, too.
"A lot of people who work in the public world end up giving themselves to the public," says Mr. Busch. "I believe Billy remains his own private person who is somehow completely bound up in the public work, but knows how to keep what he needs of himself for his wife and his children and friends. And that is a remarkable achievement."
An energetic staff
Based in Washington, Share Our Strength has 16 staff members who are young, hard-working and "very, very smart," according to Mr. Busch. Robert Fersh, executive director of the Food Research and Action Center, remembers the first time he walked into a SOS staff meeting:
"There were maybe 15 people, jammed into Billy's office, mostly sitting on the floor or tables. There was a palpable sense of energy, high spirits. My take was that Billy had really coralled the idealism of a bunch of people. . . . There was a lot of laughter and a lot of joy -- and when you're working on hunger, you don't usually have that."
Mr. Shore sees Share Our Strength as helping to redefine public service. The organization depends on the efforts of a volunteer force of thousands, many of whom have been painstakingly recruited "one person at a time."
"Most of the people in our organization would have never imagined themselves as social or political activists," he says. "Most considered themselves business people, doing their jobs and involved in their communities. Many have become pre-eminent activists on this hunger issue."
There's chef Noel Cunningham, for instance, who owns three restaurants in Denver and a growing resume of public service. Mr. Cunningham developed the organization's "Quarters For Kids" program, which rallies schoolchildren to help feed needy children by bringing quarters to school on a designated day.
"My life would be very boring without SOS in it," Mr. Cunningham says. "Billy has given me the opportunity to funnel and challenge the side of me that wants to care about society."
This summer, the organization will launch volunteer programs in Baltimore, Boston and Washington. The new effort, Operation Front-Line, will bring trained teams of chefs and restaurateurs into nutrition clinics and maternal and child health units. The volunteers will teach nutrition, cooking and food budgeting.
"If you go sit at a shelter, you will basically see young women who have traveled on two or three buses, with a couple of kids hanging on them, who stand in line to get a check," says Mr. Shore. "Almost no one talks to them. Nobody tells them what to do with the money or how best to use it. What they need, more than the money, is some sort of human contact with somebody, a mentor who could share some skills and some ideas."
He says he would like to see his organization become "a rite of passage" for creative people looking to put their talents to public service.
"Down the road, the real significance of SOS is not going to be whether we raise $6 million or $4 million. Or whether we had 130 events vs. 110 events. It's going to be that we really unlocked something in whatever number of people.
"To me, it really doesn't matter if it's a large number or a small number. What matters is that people get a sense of their own abilities to contribute to their community."
THE SHORE FILE:
Occupation: Founder and executive director of Share Our Strength.
Born: Feb. 3, 1955.
Education: B.A. in political science, University of Pennsylvania, 1977; law degree from George Washington University, 1981.
Family: Married since 1981 to Bonnie Shore. Two children: Zack, 7, and Mollie, 3.
Mentor: "[Former Sen. Gary] Hart was a big influence in his ability to think of the big picture, in terms of organizational skills and in terms of a lot of the issues I care about."
On leaving politics: "When Gary Hart's campaign ended suddenly in 1987, as tragic as that was for all of us involved, it really opened my eyes to my family for the first time. Zack was 2 and I had missed most of his childhood. . . . It scares me to think what I would have been like as a father -- I don't think I would have been bad, but not nearly as attentive or involved in the children's development -- if that campaign had kept going and I had kept traveling around the country."
Biggest culinary confession: "I'm the worst eater in the world. I'm terribly picky. With one or two exceptions, I have never had a vegetable in my life. I once had a piece of carrot cake, which is the closest I've ever come. I've never had a salad, never had a piece of lettuce. . . . I'm embarrassed because I'm such a bad eater. I'm working on it. I eat seafood now, I eat fruit. Vegetables are the last big hurdle."